John Martin

Demolition Derby
Location: Graton, California
Nationality: American
Biography: John F. Martin lives in Graton, California, a small village in western Sonoma County with his wife and his dog, Bella.  John’s photographs were included in the show of the Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou at UCLA Fowler Museum and are in... read on
Public Story
Demolition Derby
Credits: john martin
Date of Work: 08/12/18 - Ongoing
Updated: 11/26/19

America is indisputably a nation of cars. Cars do not last forever—and some, when they die, do not go gently into that good night. They go into demolition derbies. 

The demolition derby is as American as baseball. In a demolition derby, cars are crashed into each other, and the last car moving wins. A poor person’s sport (yes, women participate too), the demolition derby resembles the jousting of knights of old.

The cars are big, sturdy, Detroit cars that have seen their best days as much as fifty years ago or more, cars that I grew up admiring, driving, and working on and under. Competitors in the derby lovingly prepare their steeds for the day of competition: They strip the interior, leaving only the driver’s seat, moving the gas tank and battery to the car’s center. They remove all the glass and weld a metal bar down the front—to prevent the hood from flying off and decapitating the driver—and weld shut all the doors and the trunk. They install a full-cage roll bar, weld half-inch solid-steel plates to the sides of the interior, and add steel poles for bracing and support. Drivers wear helmets and neck braces. (Despite all these safety features, fire trucks and emergency vehicles stand by on the track, nevertheless.)

After readying the car for battle, competitors customize the cars for show. This can be anything from elaborate paint jobs to sculptural add-ons from local sponsors or in homage to the cars of Mad Max.

After an entry parade and the national anthem, the competition begins with all the cars lined up in alternate directions in the middle of the dirt track, a fifty yard square with dirt berms. When the announcer signals Go, the cars smash, bang, collide and crash into each other—all hell breaks loose. 

The owners must remove their dead cars and car parts from the fairgrounds.

I photographed these demolition derbies at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds (California).